Some of the Obvious Ways Marijuana Benefits Society

Less obesity and greater workforce participation are just two of the many benefits.

Access to medicinal cannabis is improving Americans’ quality of life in ways few advocates could have initially predicted. As the number of people utilizing marijuana grows, so too does our understanding of its societal benefits. Here are some of the latest scientific findings:

• More Pot, Fewer Opioids: Medical cannabis legalization is associated with lower rates of opioid abuse and mortality. According to data compiled by the RAND Corporation in 2015, patients are far less likely to become addicted to opiate pain relievers in jurisdictions that permit medical marijuana. Fewer opioid addicts mean fewer deaths, says the Journal of the American Medical Association. Their 2014 study determined that opioid-related overdose deaths fall 20% in the first year after the implementation of legalization and decline by as much as 33% by the sixth year. • Reduced Prescription Drug Spending: It’s not just patients’ use of opiates that’s declining. According to a University of Georgia study, patients’ use of all varieties of prescription drugs drops when medical cannabis is an option. Researchers assessed the relationship between medical marijuana legalization laws and physicians’ prescribing patterns in 17 states from 2010–2013. Specifically, they assessed patients’ consumption of and spending on prescription drugs approved under Medicare Part D in nine domains: anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders, and spasticity. They reported that pharmaceutical drug use fell significantly in seven of those domains, resulting in an annual savings of $165.2 million in prescription drug spending. • Less Obesity: Those with access to cannabis tend to be more active and are less likely to drink alcohol. So argue the authors of a 2015 study published in Health Economics. Investigators at San Diego State University reviewed 12 years of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to examine the effects of medical marijuana laws on body weight, wellness and exercise.
“The enforcement of MMLs (medical marijuana laws) is associated with a 2% to 6% decline in the probability of obesity,” they reported. “Our estimates suggest that MMLs induce a $58 to $115 per-person annual reduction in obesity-related medical costs.” For those age 35 or older, authors determined that the passage of medical pot laws is "associated with an increase in physical wellness and frequent exercise.” For younger adults, researchers theorized that obesity declines were likely due to a decrease in alcohol consumption.

• Greater Workforce Participation: Increased medical cannabis access is also having a positive impact in the workplace. According to another study published in Health Economics in 2016, full-time employees between the ages of 50 and 59 were 13% less likely to report absences due to illness following medical marijuana legalization. Those ages 40 to 49 were 11% less likely to do so, and those ages 30 to 39 were 16% less likely to report a medical-related absence.

“Although there is not a direct identification of those who use marijuana for medical purposes in the data, overall sickness absence is reduced for those in age and gender groups most likely to be cardholders,” the study concluded. “The results of this paper therefore suggest that medical marijuana legalization would decrease costs for employers as it has reduced self-reported absence from work due to illness/medical issues."

A separate study, published in October by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reported that the enactment of statewide medicinal cannabis programs is associated with greater participation in the workforce by those aged 50 and older. “Health improvements experienced by both groups (older men and women) permit increased participation in the labor market,” the authors wrote. Specifically, investigators determined that the enactment of medical pot laws was associated with a “9.4% increase in the probability of employment and a 4.6%–4.9% percent increase in hours worked per week” among those over the age of 50.

“Medical marijuana law implementation leads to increases in labor supply among older adult men and women,” they concluded. “These effects should be considered as policymakers determine how best to regulate access to medical marijuana.”

A version of this story also appears in the November edition of Freedom Leaf Magazine and Alternet.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and serves as a senior policy advisor for Freedom Leaf, Inc. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013).

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